REVIEW: There's Nothing Little in THE LITTLE MERMAID (2023)

THE LITTLE MERMAID (2023) has a better storyline and character development than most of the other movies in this genre. It stays true to what the original 1989 film was about while adding new elements that take the narrative to more interesting perspectives. 
Orly Agawin

Disney's live action remakes of beloved animated classics seem like an opportunistic cash grab, with mixed results. Instead of creating original content, it seems that the thought process was: "This is something people already like." It's okay to give them the same thing in a different format. While some of it has been quite magical,  most have been merely an array of bland, lifeless computer-generated images.

But THE LITTLE MERMAID (2023) has a better storyline and character development than most of the other movies in this genre. It stays true to what the original 1989 film was about while adding new elements that make the narrative dive into more interesting depths. 

Ariel is the youngest daughter of King Triton and she longs to explore the world of the surface. She wants to learn more about humanity. However, she is forbidden by her father, who believes that humans are violent savages. With the aid of her friend Flounder and the trusted Sebastian, she dares defy Triton's orders by saving the adventurous Prince Eric in a shipwreck. 

Smitten, Ariel makes a bargain with Ursula, trading her voice in exchange for legs and the chance to visit Eric and the world about the surface. If she doesn't get the kiss of true love by her third day, she will be bound to Ursula for eternity.

In retrospect, the story of a fish-out-of-water mermaid diving into a Faustian deal to explore the surface and find true love seems a bit archaic, but still very well intact. As a matter of fact, these classic elements are still at this rendition's core: Ariel, a curious and rebellious teen, goes from being a king's daughter to a prince's wife. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's classic tunes that form the heart of the movie are also mostly intact, as is the Oscar-winning song "Under the Sea".

But it is Director Rob Marshall who has given Ariel a greater complexity and depth, with a young actress who more than meets the challenge.

Halle Bailey shines in the title role. She is expressive, energetic, and endearing, with an equal mix of girlish sweet and womanly spine. Halle Bailey finds new ways to express songs, stories and dialogues that fans of the original have loved. Her rendition of the song "Part of Your World," which we have all heard many times before, was unexpectedly moving. Bailey can handle the physical and emotional demands that this role requires. She deserves to become a big star.

This LITTLE MERMAID offers deep character depth for both Ariel and Prince Eric. David Magee's screenplay shows how both leads try to assert themselves, their identities, and their freedom amidst parental expectations. Jonah Hauer King, who plays Eric, even has his own song "I Want", which makes this character go beyond the blandly attractive Disney prince. This makes Eric and Ariel's relationship more than just a quick superficial attraction, quite an interesting, yet substantial take on ties that really bind.

Further, this version explores how Ariel's character can go deeper and wider as she steps on the scorching land above the sea. Through clever touches, Magee is able to bring more focus on Ariel’s courage, wit, and gracious innocence. Consider the scene where Ariel explains facts about the ocean to Eric (even without words) - is an inspired touch. The fact that Ariel gets to trade the high-heeled, uncomfortable boots she got at the castle in exchange for comfortable sandals also has certain cleverness to it. Also, Ariel can continue to sing in her head, which is a clever touch that allows her not to be completely silent during her stay on the surface. And finally, the way Ariel gets Eric to guess her name is one of many genuine laughs in the film.

Daveed Diggs is as good as ever in his role of Sebastian the crab. Javier Bardem brings gravitas and tenderness to his role as Triton. Awkwafina's smart-ass persona, something she's known for, worked well as the seagull Scuttle. But it is Melissa McCarthy who has repainted the iconic Disney villain Ursula for the big screen. McCarthy spins Ursula into a well-developed villain, without diminishing the core that made this villain an icon on its own.

On the other hand, LITTLE MERMAID's visual effects are its main flaw. The underwater movements mostly look slack, simulated, and obscure. Merpeople seem like CGI animations, whose skins look like dry, shiny porcelain that feels like they're floating on dry humid air, rather than swimming in salty waters. While it is a joy to watch Sebastian's "Under the Sea," with its vivid colors and breathtaking choreography, it doesn't capture the true feeling of being underwater.

Still, there's nothing little in THE LITTLE MERMAID (2023). As the credits roll and the final notes of its enchanting music fade away, it leaves a whispered imprint. It reminds us of the everlasting power of dreams, the courage to defy expectations, and the transformative nature of love. This reimagination of a beloved classic resonates as a testament to Disney's enduring legacy, the power of movie magic, and through Ariel's story - the limitless possibilities that lie within the depths of the human spirit.

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